Friday 5 November 2004

Libertarians and elections

Stuart has criticised libertarians for not taking part in elections:
"Libertarians" are disnonourable, they are not democrats: they shun elections.
I think that it is useful to have a look at the very first publication of the Libertarian Alliance, the UK's leading libertarian organisation. Here is part of what was written way back in 1979:
IDEAS CHANGE SLOWLY Although ideas sometimes change slightly as a direct result of the political cut-and-thrust, fundamental ideas usually change slowly. There are entrenched assumptions which cannot be challenged by anyone who wishes to be politically influential. Politicians of a reflective disposition will often admit that a certain policy has great merits, but will add that it is “politically impossible”, because it goes against ruling opinions inherited from the past.

BUT IDEAS CHANGE Yet these fundamental ideas do change. In the Wealth of Nations Smith ridiculed the possibility that free trade could ever be introduced in Britain. A few decades later, it substantially had been, and the Wealth of Nations was largely responsible. Other examples include the rapid spread of Marxism in Europe before the First World War, and in recent years the sudden collapse of the monolithic Keynesian consensus. In both these cases, preparatory developments in earlier decades, which might have seemed quite inconsequential to many, were vital.

As a result of such changes, the parameters of politics shift. What was politically possible becomes politically impossible, and what was politically impossible may even become impossible to resist.

HOW IDEAS CHANGE It is a mistake to think that these changes occur by means of a gradual diffusion of slight influences affecting the mass of people uniformly. Free trade, Marxism and monetarism did not gain influence because millions of ordinary people found them day by day that bit more appealing. They spread because they were adopted by small groups of people who turned out to be influential propagandists. These ideas were picked up by individuals atypical of the mass, variously known as “intellectuals”, “propagandists” or “purveyors of second-hand ideas”. After decades of these ideas being discussed by little coteries in unprepossessing journals and grubby meeting halls, barely noticed by the surounding world and without any great effect upon it, the ideas were disseminated more widely and in due course played their part in the rise and fall of empires.

Within the community of intellectuals there is the same hierarchial relationship as within society at large: the groundling intellectuals tardily accept the ideas advanced earlier by higher-order intellectuals.

Very roughly, the ideas which make the running in current social policy are the ideas embraced by the lower-order intellectuals twenty years earlier, and by the higher-order intellectuals fifty years earlier. There are many important exceptions and qualifications to this picture, but it is much more accurate than the theory that millions of people spontaneously change their ideas, a bit at a time, in a direction which appeals to them. Very few people would accept that latter theory if stated in those words, but they implicitly accept it when they come to the task of persuading the world to implement whatever particular policies they hold dear. They ask themselves how all those people out there in the street can be directly worked upon in order to imbue them with the desired outlook and assumptions. But that is an adman’s question, the wrong question, and if it is asked, the correct answer (that there is no way it can be done) will be unnecessarily dispiriting.

The use of the term “intellectuals” above should not be misinterpreted. The intellectuals or propagandists who matter are not necessarily very intelligent or well-qualified. A few may happen to be academics, but most will not be.

MASS PUBLICY NOT THE AIM What all this means in concrete terms is that a libertarian propaganda group primarily aims to recruit a number (small by necessity) of committed and knowledgeable adherents to libertarian doctrine. The group should not be much concerned with the direct results of publicityseeking efforts or of campaigning for particular political measures.

All of the group’s activities should be judged in the light of long-term propaganda. The group will seek some media attention and will effortlessly receive more, and will agitate and campaign on particular issues. It will be a welcome bonus if any of these efforts are intrinsically successful, but it will be no great tragedy if they have no effect on legislation or on mass opinion. Their main value is in recruiting the few potential libertarian propagandists, and in helping to educate those already recruited.

The recruiting of one committed and knowledgeable libertarian activist is of immensely more value than thousands of pages of publicity in the national press or thousands of hours of TV exposure. Those pages and hours of media coverage might result in the obtaining of several recruits. But recruits to what? If it be recruits to an organisation for getting further pages and hours of coverage, it is futile, if not harmful.

Shallow free market sympathisers sometimes come to us and say: “Why don’t you do something?” The answer is that we are doing something, invariably far more even in crude man-hours than the speaker, and he is welcome to help us in what we are doing, provided he understands and sympathizes with it. What he has in mind, however, is some attention- getting campaign. In other words he wants us to allocate time and energy we now allocate to doing something important (higherorder, long-term propaganda) and allocate it to doing something ephemeral and silly.

And in conclusion:
NO NEED FOR A LINE Among matters controversial within the libertarian movement, on which the group does not at this stage need to have a settled “line” are: the comparative merits of various economic methodologies (e.g. Austrian or Chicago), the ethical bases of libertarianism (e.g. natural rights or utilitarianism), foreign policy in the current world situation (e.g. unilateral disarmament or support for NATO), the political organization of a libertarian society (anarchism or minimal statism), the merits of particular productive techniques (e.g. nuclear generation of electricity), abortion and the rights of children. These are debated vigorously within the group, and it may be that in years to come some of the issues will be so clarified that a definite line is indicated. Or it may be that when the group is much bigger there will be room for more independent groups taking a definite stand on such questions, in addition to continuing the LA as the broad “alliance”.

There is also a wide area of propaganda strategy on which no uniform line is necessary. For example, most members of the Libertarian Alliance are not members or supporters of any political party. There are a few LA members in each of several political parties. So far as we can judge, most are opposed to forming a libertarian political party, but a few would favour that. There is continuing debate about the merits of these strategies, and it would be quite inappropriate for the LA as an organization to rule which was the best. There are similar differences on the wisdom of working within various pressure groups, such as Amnesty International or the National Council for Civil Liberties.

For obvious historical reasons there are far more libertarians in the US than elsewhere and some of them do indeed take part in elections. Have a look at what happened on Tuesday:
Badnarik's total of 379,229 votes continued to increase as late vote counts trickled in. Trailing behind were the Constitution Party's Michael Peroutka, with 130,285 votes, and the Green Party's David Cobb, with 105,808. [All vote totals from USA Today's web site.] Badnarik's name appeared on 48 state ballots, plus D.C., compared to 35 for Peroutka and 27 for Cobb.
So some libertarians do contest elections - even for the US presidency - and perform better than the Greens. In Britain, most of us chose to follow the strategy laid out in the LA's document that I have quoted from.


David Farrer said...

Comments made on previous template:

David Malloch
Funny you should mention that Stuey, as I am now going to start referring to MSP's as wee Hitlers in recognition of their generally illiberal attitudes and aversion to personal freedoms.

12 November 2004, 23:51:50 GMT
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On this particular strand we ought to have called Godwin's Law on you long ago.

12 November 2004, 07:33:19 GMT
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David Malloch
I note accusations of cretinism not refuted, and for perfectly good reasons. 
BTW your trolling isn't annoying at all Stupot, don't kid yourself to the contrary. Though it is probably one of your few pleasure in life.

11 November 2004, 22:23:15 GMT
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Knickers twisted wee Davie? 
I must mock your facile attempts more frequently in the future: I can see it will reap rich dividends. 
Golly, you are scary mister.

11 November 2004, 08:49:18 GMT
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David Malloch
You really are a grade A cretin aren't you Stuart? 
"David Malloch is happily calling Scots a bunch of "Petty Social Fascists" for seeking a ban on smoking in enclosed public places" 
The above for example. If you had actually bothered to read it with a modicum of intelligence you would easily have spotted that the "petty social fascists" were the Holyrood parliamentarians, and not "Scots" as you seem to think. 
Brains ain't really your strong point any Stu? 
And while we are at, myself and Mr Ross do not collaborate in our comments, his opinions are his, and mine are mine. 
I know, all terribly complicated Stuart, two people with different opinions, but don't worry about it too much pal.

10 November 2004, 23:53:04 GMT
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David Farrer said...

I love you "libertarians", you are SOOOOO inconsistent. Its like taking candy from a baby. 
While on the "A great deal of confusion in a nation" strand David Malloch is happily calling Scots a bunch of "Petty Social Fascists" for seeking a ban on smoking in enclosed public places, over on the "Libertarians and elections" strand his wee pal Alastair Ross is busy condoning Singapore's ban on chewing gum! 
Get your stories straight you guys! 
Why do "libertarians" love the singularly illiberal Singapore regime? You have cited it more than once as a nirvana.

10 November 2004, 14:05:33 GMT
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Ali, Ali, Ali, when will you ever learn? 
A really easy and quick reference to Google popped up this CNN story in 1st place: 
containing in para 2: 
-"Gum dealers face jail if they break the rules." 
You are so lazy. Do research before you attack me. 
I love how you were so desperate to avoid dealing with the "Libertarians and elections" debate that you just veered way off on to an irrelevant side-issue: you are dishonourable.

10 November 2004, 13:28:08 GMT
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Alastair Ross
You are still wrong. Singapore law provides for a fine,not a prison sentence in the case of possession. It hardly seems possible for one person to err as often as Mr Dickson. Perhaps there are clones.

10 November 2004, 13:03:54 GMT
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I didn't say "for chewing gum", I said "for possessing it". 
Facts and Alastair will forever be strangers.

10 November 2004, 09:49:29 GMT
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Alastair Ross
No-one goes to prison in Singapore for chewing gum. The penalty is a fine.

10 November 2004, 09:32:12 GMT
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David Farrer said...

I would prefer to live in democratic Italy than sham-democratic Singapore. 
For all Italy's many, varied and infuriating characteristics it remains one of the most wonderful countries on the planet, with a comparatively healthy and happy population. 
Much as I dislike chewing-gum, I find it hard to respect a country that throws its citizens in jail for possessing it (Singapore). 
Is it merely a coincidence that the country that most likens "libertarian" ideals, the USA, has an active Libertarian Party?

10 November 2004, 08:56:37 GMT
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Alastair Ross
The monomaniacal fetish for democracy per se discounts the fact that its simply a system which, it is to be hoped,upon application produces good governance and not an end in itself. Some well-run countries manage with a stripped-down version of democacy, like Singapore,whilst others,not so well-run, like Italy, with its countless post-war governments provide examples of democracy's weaknesses. That said,of course, Churchill was correct in saying that it is the worst system except for all the others. As for Libertarian sentiments, they can be found, to varying degrees, in cross-party settings. It seems reasonable to believe that the former Labour leader, Michael Foot's devotion to the works of Hazlitt may indicate a quiet sympathy with elements of Libertarianism.

10 November 2004, 06:35:37 GMT
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Surely the more salient point is whether participating in elections would have made any difference? It's all very well to bluster about your ideas but if the societal conditions won't take them, participating directly in elections won't help. In participatory democracy, furthermore, there is a difference between perceived political spheres and thought spheres. The relationship between the two isn't clearly defined, and an indirect influence by some groups can be greater than trying to muscle in on political structures.

9 November 2004, 20:00:08 GMT
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Eh, ... I hate to point this out, but its not a terribly successful strategy is it? 
Exactly how much progress have the "libertarians" made in 25 years of abstaining from elections? If anything society has moved further from your ideals. 
Your contributors have had several days now to wow us with their gems of insight on the subject of democracy. They have chosen not to. I can only conclude that the topic does not interest them. 
As democracy is the only tool available to change society I take it that you admit defeat. I accept your surrender. But as you did not even try, I continue to consider you dishonourable.

9 November 2004, 13:40:20 GMT